‘Trump and circumstance‘, The Monthly Today, 22 July 2016 updated
The teaser to this piece runs, ‘How Donald Trump is exploiting the rules of politics and media, and what it means for Australia’. The article is about much more than Trump – though it is good on that – because it weaves a story about the nature of politics – politics anywhere in the ‘advanced democracies’ – in 2016.
Kelly nails Trump’s fear-mongering, bluster, disregard for even easily-checkable facts and clanging lack of attention to how he will implement any of his swingeing ‘promises’. He goes on to quote Joan Didion on the 1988 presidential campaign and argues that people today are not taken in by political set-pieces like the candidate throwing baseballs to aides at airport stops to obtain cute television footage – or, possibly, jogging through the streets or donning a hi-vis vest in a factory. There is, says Kelly ‘no longer any belief among insiders that anyone, anywhere, would consider this anything other than “a setup”. These days voters get that the whole thing is theatre, and both journalists and campaigners know this.’
Yet the setups continue and they are not just about media opportunities. They are about avoiding sensitive issues, as well: Indigenous distress, domestic violence, refugee policy. They involve ‘[t]he convention of emaciated political language, systematically emptied of any content that might plausibly mean anything to another human being’.
Kelly concludes that ‘there is a simple explanation for the parlous primary voting totals of both major parties: neither side was offering enough, and the people knew it’. Which brings him back to Trump.
Trump understands a lot of things, but this is what he understands best: that voters see through the common practices that have come to define so much of our political life. Yes, he also deploys the politics of fear and race and hatred. But fundamental to all of this is his comprehension that many conventions have not only outlived their usefulness, but that they are actively preventing engagement between voters and those who would lead them, and, moreover, that voters know this, and want out. Trump offers them a way out.
Recommended. See also our collection on the media and the Australian election. Plus this piece on the connections between the Trump phenomenon and growing inequality in the US.